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(News Focus) Park seeks to cap N.K. tensions with dialogue overture: experts
SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye appears to be seeking to bring spiraling tensions with North Korea under control before it is too late, experts said Friday, after she made the strongest overture of dialogue yet toward the communist nation.

   Park said in a meeting with ruling party lawmakers Thursday night that she intends to "talk with North Korea" and continue humanitarian assistance to the impoverished nation regardless of political and security tensions, according to participants.

   Just a few hours earlier, her point man on North Korea, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, urged Pyongyang to step forward to the negotiating table to resolve the suspension of operations at their jointly run factory complex in the North's border city of Kaesong.

   Park said the minister's appeal was part of efforts to open dialogue, according to participants.

   The remarks were seen as Park's clearest overture yet toward Pyongyang and shows that she is shifting the focus of her North Korea policy to dialogue, experts said, though she also renewed her commitment to deal strongly with North Korean provocations as a matter of principle.

   The overture came ahead of Park's summit with U.S. President Barack Obama set for early May.

   "The point is on dialogue," said Yang Moo-jin, a North Korea expert at the University of North Korean Studies. "I think President Park is trying to handle the situation in a stable manner by activating the 'Korean Peninsula trust process' before it becomes more difficult to handle."

   The trust process refers to Park's campaign pledge to seek greater exchanges and dialogue with Pyongyang so as to build trust and reduce tensions. The policy goal has been in doubt as North Korea has unleashed a flurry of belligerent rhetoric and threats of war.

   Yun Deok-min, a senior analyst at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, also said that Park's proposal could be seen as aimed at providing the communist nation with a face-saving way out of the "chicken game" it has been engaged in for months.

   Park could have also thought that unless the tensions are defused early, it could hurt her efforts to revitalize the economy. Earlier Thursday, Park hosted a lunch meeting for leading foreign investors and assured them South Korea will remain a safe place for investment.

   After conducting a long-range rocket launch in December and its third nuclear test in February, North Korea has ratcheted up tensions in anger over new U.N. sanctions for its nuclear test and U.S.-involved annual military drills in the South.

   The regime has voided the Korean War armistice and nonaggression pacts it signed with South Korea decades ago, and cut off all cross-border hotlines before declaring it was in "a state of war" with the South.

   It also threatened to launch nuclear attacks on the South and the U.S., vowed to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor to bolster its atomic arsenal and suspended operations at the Kaesong complex. It has also shown signs of preparing to launch a new medium-range ballistic missile.

   Yang said he believes the North's decision to suspend the Kaesong complex could have forced a shift in Park's stance.

   "This is the last bastion of inter-Korean relations," he said. "If this project is scrapped, it could leave a blemish on Park's presidency."

   The complex was set up when reconciliation between the two Koreas boomed following the first-ever summit of the two Koreas in 2000. Though it has long been plagued by political and nuclear disputes, the complex has still survived as the South's only remaining joint project with the North while all other projects were scrapped.

   The project combines cheap North Korean labor with South Korean capital and technology. A total of 123 South Korean factories employ some 53,000 North Korean workers at the complex. Revenues from the zone were considered a key source of hard currency for the impoverished North.

   At issue is how the North will respond to Park's overture.

   Yang said South Korea should try to refrain from any actions that could aggravate tensions until the April 15 birthday of late North Korean national founder Kim Il-sung, one of the biggest national holidays in the country. Then the North could decide not to launch the medium-range missile and respond favorably to Park's overture.

   "Should the missile be launched, it would be like pouring cold water (on the overture)," he said.